T + 797 Writers' Toolkit Part Two

After the initial plenary session of the conference there were separate symposium/seminar/panel sessions with a number of different topics being addressed.

The first one I attended was:-

Different Fictions

This had the topic of:-

It is too easy to assume ‘literary’ novels when we talk of fiction. Excellent writing sustains other genres. This session looks at how we can support and celebrate this work.

Ian Macleod : ‘fantastic’ fiction writer
Catherine Rogers: Project Manager: Writing East Midlands
Damien Walter: Writer, Director: The Literature Network
Jonathan Davidson (Chair): Chief Executive: Writing West Midlands

The panel spoke about some of the pre-conceptions they felt that genre fiction was up against when being considered as Literature ( with a capital "L"). The main areas discussed related to science fiction, fantasy and horror writing but were equally applicable to thriller, crime, romance or any other genre.

Ian Macleod made the point that the demarcation of genre had become more noticeable in recent years and when he was reading in the 1970s for example things were less delineated with writers like J G Ballard and others being considered mainstream and science fiction seemed to be one of the best ways to address the issues concerning society at that time.

Ian went on to say that he now feels when pitching his work he has to say "I write science fiction but...." and go on to explain his novel The Light Ages for example has a very Dickensian feel to it and if you like Dickens you'll like that.

Damien made the point that all writing ultimately emerges from ideas and concepts that have gone before and could always be said to be of a genre.

He also made the important distinction between a genre novel and one that was generic. There may be many formulaic fantasy epic novels out there and people may enjoy them and want to get what they expect but there were also lots of writers with new and original things to say.

Naming was also an issue and Damian preferred the terms Alternative, Weird or Speculative fiction to avoid the preconceptions people have of horror, fantasy or science fiction.

Catherine explained how, as part of Writing East Midlands, they run a very successful alt.fiction literary festival for all aspects of writing in these genres. The key she said was to bring literature to the fore and change the emphasis as compared to a fan convention.

She said she was impressed by the writers who talk at the festival and the things they have to say are relevant to any form of writing.

All the panel members felt that by having separate sections for genre fiction in bookshops and review sections of newspapers ( if indeed genre fiction is reviewed at all ) these "ghettos" where depriving a wider audience of good writing.

There was a lot of talk of "mainstream" that the panel members seemed to tie in with literature and literary fiction so in the general discussion I made the point that the reality is that "literary fiction" is almost as much a ghetto as the genres. The mainstream for most people was populated by Jeffery Deaver, J K Rowling and dare I say it Dan Brown and genre fiction was in one sense thriving. (Indeed after the conference I had occasion to visit Waterstones in Birmingham and virtually the whole of the 1st floor is given over to science fiction, fantasy and horror writing. It was more of an enclave than a ghetto.)

Responding to this, Damian took what he said was a sometimes controversial view that there was a class association with types of fiction and at inner city schools where he had done work there was little accessible literary fiction to interest readers as they felt it was not about them.

The genre fiction however was able to take issues not being addressed elsewhere and weave them into the stories they tell. Iain M Banks was cited as a writer with strong socialist messages that are expressed in his Culture science fiction series.

Another member of the audience, who worked in children's literature, said that in the emerging Young Adult arena genre is far less of an issue or even noticed as it is all subsumed into the overall grouping of Young Adult and this was a positive thing.

I wonder if perhaps as these readers move into their 20s and beyond they will start to demand or at least seek out genre fiction and the booksellers and reviewers will have to react.

Jonathan asked what positive steps could be taken to get genre fiction to a wider audience.

One view was that it needed to be given more space in mainstream literary reviews but how this was to be achieved was not really discussed. I think there is a negative feedback loop there, it's not reviewed so only fans find out about it; because only fans follow the genres it's not reviewed for the mainstream audience.

Ian suggested short fiction was a good way into a genre to get a feel for good writing without having to invest a lot of time. Though short fiction doesn't exactly do that well in book stores or reviews either.

On the review point he quoted the now famous Sturgeon's Law , when told that 90% of science fiction is rubbish writer Theodore Sturgeon responded "well 90% of everything is crud" ( or "crap" if you prefer ). This is a really valid point, in any field of endeavour , by definition almost, only a small amount will be really really good. It can't all be above average.

One thing I was unable to mention during the discussion but would like to plug now is the use of audio podcasts as a way to get a taste for the current state of genre fiction. For me the best place to look is the Escape Artists group of science fiction, fantasy and horror podcasts. With the Drabble Cast also very worthy of note.


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